Mass Shootings’ Most Invisible Victims: The Severely Mentally Ill. We are not the Villains.

by Jeanene Harlick | October 14, 2015 4:39 am

Mass shootings’ most invisible victims: the severely mentally ill. We are not the villains.

Three…. Two… One…. BOOM.

That’s about how long it takes for the airwaves to explode with language – from TV reporters, political pundits, victim families, and our elected leaders – which slander the mentally ill following mass shootings such as the one which occurred in Roseburg, Oregon.

You had Hardball’s Chris Matthews – the epitomic liberal, who theoretically should be the disenfranchised’s defender-in-chief – denouncing all mentally ill individuals as “nuts” whose civil rights should be obliterated.

When WDBJ News reporter Alison Parker was killed on-air in August, there was her father telling Fox News and CNN that evening:

“I’m not going to let this issue drop. We’ve got to do something about crazy people getting guns.”

Did you know the severely mentally ill are no more likely to commit acts of violence than the general public? Just 3 – 5 percent of violent acts are committed by the mentally ill1, and only 2 percent of those acts involve weapons2.

Did you know that, on the contrary, the severely mentally ill are ten times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general public, rather than commit them? This includes victimizing ourselves – whether through suicide or self-harm3.

But the actual facts surrounding the mentally ill don’t really matter to pundits, family members, the general public, or politicians pandering to the gun lobby.

The facts matter a hell of a lot to me. Because I’ve been labeled “severely mentally ill” for more than a decade, and its mythical association with violence is a primary reason why I experience prejudice and discrimination on a daily basis; why I can’t get a job to save my life; why I live in poverty – despite holding college degrees and being a former, experienced journalist; and why I often want to kill myself – because society refuses to allow me to live a life with dignity or meaning, due to the opportunities I’m continually denied.

Research suggests mass shootings like those which took place at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Colorado, and now Umpqua Community College are increasing mental health stigma and reinforcing negative stereotypes that all mentally ill are dangerous and violent4. Research also shows mainstream media’s coverage of mental illness – including reporters’ tendency to focus on high-profile, extreme, or violent cases – plays a significant role in the negative stereotypes the general public harbors toward us today.5

This is not fair and it must stop.

People with mental illness have a hard enough time as it is: we experience disproportionate levels of employment and housing discrimination, among other things6. The incorrect belief that most of us are a public danger or menace – “time bombs” ready to explode in violence – plays a central role in the prejudice directed at us7. During the past four decades, negative attitudes rooted in these unfounded beliefs have only intensified, resulting in greater social ostracism8. Where once the “mad” were simply viewed as another form of human diversity, we are now viewed as almost subhuman, atavistic beings9.

Let me tell you something: Guns don’t kill people. The mentally ill don’t kill people.

People kill people. All sorts of people kill people. Period.

Gun violence of any kind – and in particular mass shootings – are tragic and I don’t exactly blame people, particularly victim families, for the unintentionally prejudicial language they use, nor the uninformed policies they advocate for, in efforts to make meaning of the chaos and heartbreak they’ve experienced or witnessed.

But I do blame the media for using – or failing to qualify or question – derisive language which lumps all severely mentally ill individuals together, and implies we’re all deranged, all prone to violence, and all should have our civil rights stripped. That is not the function our fifth estate is supposed to serve.

I protest the media’s persistent refusal to call such language what it is (prejudice), and to remind its viewers that terms like “crazy” and “nuts” are pejorative slurs whose use reflects and perpetuates entrenched, negative attitudes toward people like me – a group of almost 14 million individuals10 (1 in 17 Americans) who come in many different shades, and whose diversity of mind should be respected just as much as ethnic minorities’ diversity of race and color, or the LGBTQ community’s diversity of gender or sexual orientation.

Do you want to know how it feels when people talk about the severely mentally ill as Chris Matthews, and many others did, last week?

It feels like I imagine a Black person feels when a racist calls him or her a “nig#er.”

How would you react if the father of a daughter fatally shot by a non-White person, in public, said in the days following the shooting:

“I’m not going to let this issue drop. We’ve got to do something about chi#ks getting guns.”

“It’s senseless that her life… was taken by a sp#c with a gun.”

“He was a nig#er that got a gun, and that’s part two of where we’re going with this.”

I think it’s pretty fair to say the public – and media – reaction would be one of outrage.

Replace “ch#nk”, “sp#c” and “n#gger” with “crazy people,” “crazy person,” and “crazy man,” respectively, and you get what Andy Parker, Alison Parker’s father, said on TV after her shooting.

Why do we not witness the same level of outrage when the media, pundits, politicians and victim families refer to the mentally ill with equally derogatory slurs?

If you look at the origins of the word “crazy,” you may begin to understand why this term is just as pejorative as the epithets sometimes used to refer to other minorities.

First employed routinely in the 16th century, according to the online Oxford English Dictionary11, the connotations of “crazy” then included “flawed,” “damaged,” impaired, “unsound,” “diseased,” “infirm,” “demented,” “cracked,” and “deranged.” Today, “crazy”’s contemporary, dictionary definition still includes the terms “having flaws or cracks” and “deranged.” Those are anything but neutral terms.

People who negatively judge or assume things about others, on the basis of their different skin color, are called racist. People who judge others on the basis of their different mind – minds which don’t conform to culturally-constructed definitions of “sane” – are guilty of an equally hateful form of prejudice: they are sanists. We live in a nation which tolerates every form of diversity except diversity of the human psyche.

Why does it matter how we talk about mental illness – and laws associating gun violence with it – following events such as Roseburg’s?

It matters because the prejudice this discourse fuels contributes to the ongoing discrimination and denied opportunities at least 14 million Americans experience today; threatens doctor-patient confidentiality; criminalizes the mentally ill; and increases the self-stigma, humiliation, shame and feelings of worthlessness the mentally ill internalize when we are talked about in language which portrays us as defective beings. (The Gun Control Act of 1968 literally refers to the mentally ill as “mental defectives.”) Studies have found all of the above has twice as large a negative impact on our lives than the mental illness itself12. In other words, it’s prejudice which fuels and makes permanent our “severe mental illness,” increasing our societal burden.

And that’s costing all of you tax payers more money.

The prejudicial rhetoric also matters because it leads to policies which erode our rights, such as lowering the threshold for involuntary commitment, as many states have over the past few years. Legal experts agree that gun laws which are based on predicting violence based on prospective, clinical assessments are a violation of civil rights13.

And the language we use matters because these resulting policies cost the nation more in the long run. Laws which threaten doctor-patient confidentiality deter treatment seeking, and that results – among other things – in more mentally ill landing in expensive, government-funded institutions or homeless shelters, and living off of SSDI – all paid for by your tax dollars. The policies being passed today also place a greater burden on our health care system – which comes at the expense of your health insurance premiums.

If you don’t care that you’re a bigot, fine. But I bet you care about what’s coming out of your paycheck, or how much you’re shelling out for health insurance. And it’s only going to get worse so long as the same, recycled banter that characterizes media coverage following public shootings continues.

President Obama – one of the few who appreciates the complexity of American violence, and who did not vilify the mentally ill last Thursday – lamented the “routine” media coverage and politics which inevitably follows mass shootings.

Douglass County Sheriff John Hanlin also called on the media to – God forbid – do the unthinkable: refuse to focus coverage on the shooter, thereby glorifying and sensationalizing him.

TV news and cable stations have aired Hanlin’s invocation repeatedly – and every time they do, his clips are sandwiched between coverage that digs up as much information as possible about the shooter and his background, giving that 26-year-old exactly the infamy the sheriff pled the media deny him.

That, folks, is “crazy.”

Responsible media coverage in the wake of mass shootings would start with two things:
1) Separate dialogue about gun policy reform from mental illness, as researchers and mental health organizations have demanded – including the American Psychiatrist Association’s (APA) president just this past weekend14, and 2) Focus on the underlying, socioeconomic disparities, discrimination, addiction problems and gun access which are the true, primary drivers of the violence which plagues our nation.

As I mentioned above, research shows that mental illness, in and of itself, rarely leads to gun violence. What does research show? That lower socioeconomic status, being young and male, substance abuse (both alone and co-occurring with untreated mental illness), and a history of violence or domestic abuse are the major demographic and economic determinants of gun violence15. Killings such as those in Aurora, or the man who killed six people and injured Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona – shootings in which mental illness did play a role – represent only a small fraction of gun homicides in the United States16.

United States citizens have far greater access to high-capacity, semi-automatic weapons than people in any other Western nation. Despite making up only 5 percent of the world’s population, United States citizens own 50 percent of the world’s guns17. We boast the highest number of privately owned guns in the world.

Public policy, criminal justice, and mental health researchers who’ve actually studied the role – or lack thereof – mental illness plays in the United States’ mass shooting problem say laws which focus on limiting access to firearms for people with mental illness are unlikely to be effective. Instead, gun reform is most likely to increase public safety if it limits access to firearms for individuals with a history of criminal or violent behavior, or people battling substance abuse who are deemed to be at an elevated risk for violence18. Experts also recommend repairing the significantly fragmented mental health treatment system, including increasing services19, forming alliances with gun owners to provide better education about safe storage of firearms20, closing gun show loopholes, and gun-free college campuses and hospitals21. The APA’s president also this past week recommended exploring temporary, firearm restraining orders for individuals deemed an imminent risk to themselves or others.

I’m really tired of being talked about and treated like the 3/5 of a human being I’m basically considered today, and I’m tired of the media getting away with inflaming the discrimination and prejudice I live with. The different-minded are the only minority group in this nation it’s completely politically correct to disparage and oppress. We are the lepers of this country, America’s “untouchables.”

Over the past five decades, the U.S. has recognized the equality and civil rights of gay people, transgender people, the physically disabled, and racial, religious and ethnic minorities.

Now it’s our turn. Now it’s time everyone recognize the United States’ most unrepresented, invisible and oppressed minority group: the severely mentally ill. Stop blaming and scapegoating me for problems our politics, and many in the media, have played a significant role in creating. Stop slandering me on the airwaves. And start affording me the rights my constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act entitle me to.

As Patrick Corrigan – who helped found the National Consortium on Stigma and Empowerment – wrote in a 2005 book, invoking Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech:

“Some readers might blanch at using Dr. King’s noble verse to make sense of the vision needed to overcome mental illness stigma. But for many advocates, the prejudice related to psychiatric illness is no less insidious or heinous… I dream of a time when people are judged by the merit of their character, not by the diagnosis in their chart or the symptoms with which they struggle22.”

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CITATIONS

1“Mental Health Myths and Facts.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: http://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/myths-facts/

2Goode, E., & Healy, J. (2013, February 1). Focus on mental health laws to curb violence is unfair, some say. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/01/us/focus-on-mental-health-laws-to-curb-violence-is-unfair-some-say.html

3Suicide accounts for twice as many deaths as homicides, and more than half of suicides are committed with firearms, according to CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the nation.

4Corrigan, 2004; McGinty, Webster & Barry, 2013; Pescosolido, Monahan, Link, Stueve & Kikuzawa, 1999, as referenced in: Rosenberg, J. (2014). Mass shootings and mental health policy. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, XLI(1), 107-121.

5Corrigan, P. (2005). Mental illness stigma as social injustice: Yet another dream to be achieved. In P. Corrigan (Ed.), On the stigma of mental illness (pp. 315-320). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

6While the majority of people with mental illness want – and are able to – work, less than 15 percent are able to obtain employment. People with psychiatric disability experience far greater discrimination than those with physical disabilities; our unemployment rates are 3 – 5 times higher than the general population (See Corrigan & Kleinlein, Orovwuje, P.R. & Taylor, A.J.W references.)

7 See: <ahref=”http://depts.washington.edu/mhreport/facts_violence.php”>http://depts.washington.edu/mhreport/facts_violence.php

8Corrigan, P. & Kleinlein, P. (2005). The impact of mental illness stigma. In P. Corrigan (Ed.), On the stigma of mental illness (pp. 11-44). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; Orovwuje, P.R. & Taylor, A.J.W. (2006). Mental health consumers, social justice and the historical antecedents of oppression. In, A.J.W. Taylor (Ed.), Justice as a basic human need (pp. 95-111). New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

9See Watters, E. (2010). “The shifting mask of schizophrenia in Zanzibar,” in Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche. New York: Free Press; and Foucault, M. (1988). Madness and Civilization. New York: Random House.

10National Alliance on Mental Illness (2013). Mental illness facts and numbers: http://www2.nami.org/factsheets/mentalillness_factsheet.pdf

11Entry for “Crazy, adj.,” accessed at the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.plsinfo.org:2048/view/Entry/44007?rskey=DNyHqc&result=2#eid[1]

12Orovwuje & Taylor (2006); and Phelan, J.C., Link, B., Stueve, A., & Pescosolido, B. (2000). Public conceptions of mental illness in 1950 and 1996: What is mental illness and is it to be feared? Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 41, 188-207.

13Rosenberg, J. (2014). Mass shootings and mental health policy. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, XLI(1), 107-121.

14American Psychiatric Association (2015, October 3). APA President calls for gun control measures in wake of Oregon tragedy. Psychiatric News.

http://alert.psychnews.org/2015/10/apa-president-calls-for-gun-control.html[2]

15Rosenberg (2014), and American Psychiatric Association (2015).

16See Goode & Healy (2013), above.

17United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2007). World Drug Report. http://www.unodc.org/pdf/research/wdr07/WDR_2007.pdf[3]

18See Rosenberg (2014), and Goode & Healy (2013).

19Goode & Healy (2013).

20U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Surgeon General and National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. (2012, September). 2012 National Strategy for Suicide Prevention: Goals and Objectives for Action. Washington, DC: HHS.

21American Psychiatric Association (2015).

22Corrigan, P. (2005). Mental illness stigma as social injustice: Yet another dream to be achieved. In P. Corrigan (Ed.), On the stigma of mental illness (pp. 315-320). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

 

CDC statistics:

http://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/leadingcauses.html

 

 

  1. http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.plsinfo.org:2048/view/Entry/44007?rskey=DNyHqc&result=2#eid: http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.plsinfo.org:2048/view/Entry/44007?rskey=DNyHqc&result=2#eid
  2. http://alert.psychnews.org/2015/10/apa-president-calls-for-gun-control.html: http://alert.psychnews.org/2015/10/apa-president-calls-for-gun-control.html
  3. http://www.unodc.org/pdf/research/wdr07/WDR_2007.pdf: http://www.unodc.org/pdf/research/wdr07/WDR_2007.pdf

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